User Empathy: Still in Short Supply in IT?

For years, IT has been perceived by users as being insular and even technologically ‘arrogant’. How important is it for CIOs to stress user empathy with their business analysts?

When I first began my IT career, I remember seeing a cartoon that was being passed around at work.

The cartoon showed IT teams and end users as different armies on a battlefield, with each side entrenched and barricaded against the other while shots were being fired.

This attempt at dark humor revealed a truth at the time: that there were stress points and even fractures and fissures in IT and end-user relationships. On a daily basis, these relational stresses were difficult to navigate.

Has anything changed since those days?

“In my opinion as an IT Director, the #1 reason people bypass their IT department is that they feel that IT ‘gets in their way’,” said Charlie Leagra, in a blog entitled 7 reasons why end users bypass the IT department. “This could come from a number of reasons -- such as an IT group that is not customer-centric, BYOD (bring your own device) policies that make it ‘too hard’ for end users to work with IT, and/or just the sense that ‘IT doesn’t understand exactly what we want to accomplish’.”

My own consulting experience with organizations affirms this.

In one case, a major oil and gas company hired a double set of business analysts. One analyst group was on the IT side. They were the direct contacts to technical IT personnel such as system programmers, application programmers, DBAs, etc. The other set of analysts reported to the business side. These analysts worked with users and gathered business requirements that they then relayed to the IT analysts.

I had never heard of a “double analyst” arrangement before, so I asked about it. The IT director said they did it because the users felt that the IT business analysts didn't understand what the business needed.

Organizations don't double up on their business analyst teams without a good reason. If working and communicating with IT becomes too difficult, drastic measures like these can be taken. This is why CIOs and IT leaders should proactively take a hard look at the user point of view when it comes to communicating and working with IT.

Common User Perceptions of IT

To empathize with end users for relationship building, IT leaders should first take steps to understand their users’ perceptions of IT.

Here are four user IT perceptions that are found in most organizations:

1. IT takes too long

What appeared to a user as a simple report to write is going to take one to two months from what IT tells them. The reasons given are the current IT backlog, and a lot of backend integration work that must occur with other systems.

2. IT doesn’t know what’s going on

Users tell IT what they need.

Then, IT goes away to develop the application, and nothing is heard from IT for weeks.

3. IT doesn’t understand the business

The end user meets with IT to define a new application. IT writes the app, but when the user sees the app, it doesn’t do what the user wanted. Instead, IT gives the user what it thought the user should have.

4. IT talks down to us

Users meet with IT, and a subgroup of IT staffers in the meeting begin bandying around acronyms for databases, subsystems, technologies, etc. that frustrate the users because they can’t understand what IT is talking about. When users try to ask a question, they are met with a response packed with technical jargon or a non-response. The users feel IT is talking down to them.

How IT Can Improve its User Empathy

No one can underestimate the power of “yes.”

In an article about how to treat customers, Small Business BC, which supports British Columbia’s entrepreneurial businesses, explains this power as “Always look for ways to help your customers. When they have a request (as long as it is reasonable) tell them that you can do it. Figure out how afterwards. Look for ways to make doing business with you easy. Always do what you say you’re going to do.”

As a former CIO and a lifelong member of the IT community who has also spent time managing user departments, I can say from experience that IT says “no” too often. It presents itself as a roadblock to many users who want to get things done.

Much of this roadblock perception is a result of overburdened IT backlogs, so it is a good thing to regularly review these backlogs and prune all requests that are no longer pertinent. In many cases, even the original user requesters won’t remember what they were asking for!

Another approach to backlog management is renegotiating backlog priorities with users. For instance, if the customer service manager wants a new process that enables techs to update service calls in the field, is the same manager willing to move out (or eliminate) an older request for a monthly summary report on service activity? This opens up communication channels and gives everyone a voice into how IT best supports them.

Great communication is the final key.

It’s alarming that at least in one case, an organization found it necessary to hire dual sets of business analysts because it had concluded that IT analysts and end users couldn’t communicate with each other.

If communications breakdowns plague your organization, it’s probably time to revisit the skillsets on your business analyst team. If soft skills like communication are missing, including understanding and empathizing with end users, you may need to train or hire these skills to get the job done.

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